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Don’t confuse me with the facts. My mind is made up!

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I admit it.   I am one of those folks who engages in political discourse all the time.  And, with folks from every aisle.  (It’s no longer appropriate to claim there are only two aisles- since the GOP is split into at least five factions and the Democrats into at least two.  Plus,  there are fringe elements that are not represented in our government.  Thankfully!)

But, the real problem is that we hold on to misconceptions forever.  OK, almost forever.   From fake news, to information that we were taught in school and science has since proved to be faulty- our brains refuse to let go of these misconceptions.

Fake News and Truth

It’s easy to consider our brains like a computer- especially, since so often the modern explanations use just this analogy.  The difference is that computers don’t have memory.  If we remove a faulty algorithm from a program, or remove a program entirely from a computer- it’s gone.   Future processing does not consider what’s been removed, because the computer has no prior knowledge of those improper facts or faulty coding.

Not so with our brains.  When we learn something new, many of us just keep conflicting items tightly wound in our memories.  Which may explain why so many of us can’t reconcile our bible studies with scientific facts.  Too much religious dogma relies upon a (facile) concept of how the world was created.  So, when presented with the theory of evolution, many religious folks refuse to accept it. (I’m not going to ask you to reconsider how you learned the first few chapters of the bible, which actually matches a lot of evolutionary dogma, as long as you realize that this big orb upon which we reside might have taken what we now consider to be millenia to make that first revolution on its axis {the concept of intertia… and the length of a “day”- which to the bible was darkness and light- one revolution….)

Or, that much of our thought is adjusted to social contagion.  With whom we interact affects a great deal of our thoughts.  (This is way more than crowd psychology or peer pressure.)  And, when we transmit “fake news”, we never consider the effects on others.

(OK.  I am not talking about the Russians using fake news to affect our elections.  I AM talking about how certain people kept sending around articles from that are aimed at getting certain people to believe that Hillary was going to take all the guns away from American citizens, or that millions of illegal votes were cast in the election that changed the results of the popular vote.)

(But, let’s consider one “fake” news proclamation that many of our news carriers bandied about.  Yes, it was fake- but it was manufactured by less than perfect editing.  Of what am I talking?  Trump’s allegation that “thousands” or American Arabs in New Jersey were cheering when the Twin Towers fell. 

No, that didn’t happen.  But, at least three news carriers (Fox News, CNN, and NBC) created such an impression by showing thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank shrieking for joy and celebrating when the Twin Towers fell, with images of New Jersey (White) folks watching in horror as the Towers burned and fell..  And, that cascading and recurring broadcast could lead a less discerning mind to conflate the location.  As discussed in the paragraphs above, many of those folks’ brains could never “erase” that improper impression.  By the way, that’s why “eyewitnesses” cannot truly provide the perfect testimony.   Our brains are far more willing to believe “facts” that match our biases, despite the truth that stares us in the face.)

Which is our primary problem.  Once our brains assimilate misinformation, it’s nigh impossible to completely correct.  Consider the GOP oft-cited claim that PPACA (Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare) relied on “death panels”.    The fact is that there were scientific panels that would discern how much therapies cost and allocate funds to provide the best results for the most people; those are not death panels.  As a matter of course, this has been the way our private insurance companies have been acting since the advent of health insurance in the 1920s.

But, to correct those deliberately induced misconceptions?   It’s not simply showing folks how wrong they are.

Drs. M.S. Chan and D. Albarracin (University of Illinois), with Drs. C.R. Jones and K.H. Jamieson (University of Pennsylvania) provided some vital (meta-)research results in Psychological Science.  Their article, Debunking: A Meta-Analysis of the Psychological Efficacy of Messages Countering Misinformationv, was recently published.

Basically, as we’ve already discussed, simply demonstrating to someone that the information they hold dear is absolutely incorrect does not cause any changing of one’s mind.  The trick (ok, the method, it’s really not a trick) is to create conversations that allow groups to discern what the true facts are.  That means presenting detailed counteraguments (facts) to the misconceptions that obtain among the group.  Once the group realizes the reasons why the information they held dear was incorrect, it was easier to change one’s mind.

This means that those who want folks to know real data must ensure they ask questions (and listen to the replies) as the true facts are also covered.  Those with the misconceptions must be able to arrive at the real facts by considering why their previously held “beliefs” were strictly beliefs and not facts.

The authors propose this more clearly in three simple steps.

  1. Don’t repeat the fake news or misconception in detail, since that reinforces the false beliefs, rendering the truth more difficult to accept.
  2. Provide detailed, new information that clearly demonstrated why the previously held belief is based upon false or fake data.
  3. Encourage those who previously held the false belief to be able to discuss it with others, so the counter-arguments can replace the erroneous concepts.

Trying to browbeat another to make them recognize the “errors of their ways” simply fails.  Instead, we must coax the person to recognize the truth and come to their own conclusion that the previous held data was false.  (This is called “updating the mental model” in the individual[s].)

And, while these are three “simple” steps, the process is anything but simple.  Which is why so many folks persist in holding on to inaccurate information.

And, it is why the Russians and many lobbyists work hard to insert their false information first- so that the real truth is much harder to be believed!Roy A. Ackerman, Ph.D., E.A.

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